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Fresh pasta, sauce, salumi, foccaccia, and olives in a cardboard meal kit box, shot from a birdseye view Legare [Official Photo]

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Look Into London’s Restaurant Crystal Ball for 2021

Eater editors and writers look forward into a very uncertain year

It is the tradition at Eater to end the year with a survey of friends, contributors, rovers of the industry, and professional eaters. Even a year like this one. For 2020, the group were asked 13 questions, covering the best meals and the worst tweets alongside community responses, and coronavirus pivots. Their answers will appear throughout this week, with responses related in no particular order; cut and pasted below.

Having surveyed the best meals, the best delivery, the most memorable moments, the proudest pivots, the saddest closures, the most exciting returns to look forward to, the most promising newcomers, the community stars, the tweets, hopes for the restaurant world, and what should happen next, it’s the time to ask the altogether harder question: what will happen to restaurants in 2021?

Adam Coghlan, Editor, Eater London: The story of the first quarter, sadly, will be closures — many of which will make the London scene a less interesting place to eat in the short term. But if there’s one lesson from 2020, it’s that betting on anything is a mug’s game. I think it’s so far impossible to see beyond the uncertainty of 2021.

James Hansen, Associate Editor, Eater London: The fault lines that were there long before the pandemic are going to grow deeper and wider before they begin to close up — with the end of rent protections there will likely be many many closures, for the restaurants that can’t afford to make deals or guarantees. With Brexit there will be price rises on ingredients that have become par for the course in the MODERN EUROPEAN LONDON SMALL PLATES RESTAURANT and the better of those will use this as a tool of creativity; the richer of those won’t care; the less rich of those may have to reevaluate. In the last months of 2020, it was possible to infer from a collection of menus what supplier Natoora’s hero ingredient or special offer was that week, and I think Brexit will only be more legible on the capital’s menus.

The closures may result in some overdue reassessment of the restaurant property market and how the growing power of large landlords and corporatised “street food” businesses as tastemakers and standard bearers for London “street food” respectively is detrimental to the city.

More and more new restaurants will say they are serving “the community,” but diners will finally start to be more sceptical about what words like “community” and “sustainability” actually mean.

More shokunin businesses, run by individuals or offshoots of extant restaurants, will turn out some of the most exciting food in the city, more nimble and untrammelled from overheads, and thus the identity of the restaurant — as predicted by Vaughn Tan in April — will come into existential question. Michelin will make a mess of its stars, Gordon Ramsay will open burger restaurants, and restaurateurs and critics will continue to make the same mistakes and have the same tired, circular, bad-faith conversations about culinary respect to the detriment of people from the cultures affected.

A big London speciality coffee shop will close, there will be a deluxe tasting menu renaissance at the star boys when dine-in is fully “back,” and another long-serving critic will step down.

Anna Sulan Masing, food writer and Eater London contributor: Oh, So That Time Thinking And Learning Is… Over? Already?

Jonathan Nunn, food writer and Eater London contributor: I suspect we haven’t seen even a fraction of what the pandemic is going to do to the restaurant industry yet ─ so far the government has gone down a path of trying to indefinitely postpone the unresolved crisis of rent debt and kick it down further into the future. That is going to have to be resolved at some point, and I have little hope that it’s going to result in anything except a wave of closures. Related to this, is the viability of the high street restaurant, and particularly the central London restaurant. Some creative chefs may find that the restaurant isn’t necessarily the space they want to be in, and turn to other options. The delivery space will be artisanal-ised ─ while delivery-only kitchens will mainly be useful cash cows for chains or wannabe chains wanting to expand, there will be smaller ventures using them simply as the easiest way to get a good product out there. I was wondering recently whether there was any delivery item that was better than something you could get in a restaurant and came up empty, but Cem Altinsoy’s success at Kouttone with both panettone and lahmacun has changed that. I hope we’ll see more.

Chris Cotonou, writer and Eater London contributor: Jason Atherton reopens Sosharu (come on Jason!); Julian Metcalfe installs a giant Itsu in The Wolesley cafe; Jeremy Clarkson delivers his farm produce exclusively around Chiswick in a Buick Roadmaster. OK, only the first one is serious... After such a bizarre year, who knows what lies in store for us?

Sejal Sukhadwala, food writer and Eater London contributor: A Covid-shattered industry hit by Brexit-induced food shortages and supplier problems does not even bear thinking about: it’s too huge and scary.

Emma Hughes, freelance food writer and Eater London contributor: I’m just reading over my one from last year (‘I’ll still be crossing London at least once a week to park myself on a stool in Sambal Shiok’) — oh dear. I won’t be tempting fate like that again.

George Reynolds, food writer and Eater London contributor: I’m sorry to be a pessimist (and/or to state the obvious) but I don’t think COVID-19 is going anywhere soon. Best case, we might see hospitality back to something approaching ‘normal’ (whatever that word now means) by late summer, which means everyone is going to have to continue with uncertainty and depressed demand for a while yet. Which I guess means more of the same — more delivery, more meal kits, more weird solo lunches taken in public spaces. I do, however, wonder if we’ll see some form of consolidation and decluttering: the first person to pull together all the various meal kits and cook-at-home options on a single platform will make people’s lives a lot easier. It can’t make practical sense — in a world of Slerp, Big Night, Deliveroo, Uber Eats, et al — for there not to be a better way of working out all of the options available to you. Think of it as food’s equivalent of the TV streaming wars: there’s too much money out there in the pockets of people unwilling to go to restaurants for some form of aggregator not to make sense.

Shekha Vyas, food writer and Eater London contributor: With talk of a January lockdown, my overarching feeling is one of apprehension and more closures. With some of the innovations we have seen this year, however, what will be interesting is how some operators will restructure their businesses to stay afloat. I see more meal kits, more merch and more Zoom cook-alongs on the horizon.

Feroz Gajia, restaurateur and Eater London contributor: In March I said (quietly) that 60 percent of food businesses open then would not see the end of 2021, and without proper government assistance I can’t see that changing with Brexit perhaps accelerating the timeline. What this will mean for the first time in a decade is there will be far more skilled members of the hospitality industry than jobs which will lead to more food businesses being started in varying degrees of quality. All this means is that the relentless pace of new restaurants will return but even more cynical than before.

Daisy Meager, food writer and Eater London contributor: After this year, I have no idea! Sadly I think closures of much-loved spots will be inevitable but I hope people continue supporting neighbourhood places.

Vaughn Tan, author, pizza fan, and grouch: Dine-in will come back, but be restricted for longer than anyone wants and currently hopes.

Gemma Croffie, writer and Eater London contributor: More closures sadly. The surviving restaurants, (this epoch is like an evolutionary event, survival of the fittest, perhaps?) will streamline their menus, perhaps at the expense of creativity, to focus on profitability and sustainability. Indulgent, protracted, labour intensive tasting menus will be a thing of the past for most of us. There will also be more focus on suitable recyclable packaging as more restaurants move towards ghost kitchens and meal kits. Also, robotics and technology will increasingly be utilised to move to true contact free dining, even indoors.

Ed Cumming, writer and food critic: Groups with deep pockets aggressively expanding and renegotiating rents. Zone 1 places opening in neighbourhoods in Zones 2/3. The independent supplier boom proves short-lived as customers return to supermarkets.

Angela Hui, food writer and Eater London contributor: I think I said it last year, but there’s definitely still going to be more racist shitshows and more shit apologies. Oh, and we’ll all be eating mutton on toast and guzzling gallons of milk thanks to Brexit.

David J Paw, food writer and Eater London contributor: Takeout and delivery is here to stay, with someone finally creating a scaleable, effective delivery model that works for everyone; restaurants continue to leverage their brands in order to diversify their revenue streams; depressingly, more of Chinatown’s 70’s/80’s-era family-run businesses to inevitably close, to be replaced with sleek, commercial ripostes; mala hot pot to become the national dish.

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